April 14, 2005
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On the cover: Roy & Frae
Wittwer surrounded by their "team from heaven" at Sequoia
For the love
story & photos by ELLIN BELTZ
AT SEQUOIA ORCHIDS, brilliant
flowers and spiky green leaves vanish to infinity like a perspective
assignment in art class. The greenhouses hum with activity. Blossoms
are packed, living plants moved from small pots to large pots
and the air is scented with the perfume of hundreds of thousands
of orchid plants. [Left:
orange cymbidium flowers at Sequoia Orchids]
"It all started with one
plant my husband, Roy, bought me for Valentine's Day 33 years
ago in 1972" said Frae Wittwer, 62. Her voice dropped, "When
we got married we started from less than zero; we had no furniture,
just plants. Then Roy came home with the first orchid and we
built a greenhouse just for it." Within three years, they
were selling orchids to Cottage Gardens and other customers along
the Pacific Coast.
Sequoia Orchids is Humboldt
County's largest and oldest orchid growing operation. Their earthquake
proof Dutch greenhouses shelter nearly 1 million orchids in all
sizes of growth, from babies to flowering plants. The business
provides for six employees and the Wittwers, but as Frae says,
"The amount of money we make has never been the primary
goal for us. Being in a business we're passionate about is what's
important. If you love what you do, it's a success."
knows Humboldt County is famous for specialty horticulture, but
commercial orchid growers? As I found out in a week of orchid
hunting, our fertile countryside hosts a half a dozen operations,
each specializing in a different group of orchids. Some grow
first quality seedlings, others one-of-a-kind full-grown plants.
Either way, most are shipped out of county.
Roy Wittwer's sprightly walk
and infectious enthusiasm mask his 75 years. He's passionate
about orchids, and as a retired physician diagnoses himself with
a lifetime case of "orchid fever." He says, "It's
happiness. It's the wonder of nature. It's a passion. We can't
wait to see the new seedlings and make more new crosses. Our
goal is to share more beautiful orchids with the world."
Both he and Frae point out it's
a passion they share with millions of people around the world.
"We started as a cut-flower house," said Frae. "Some
of our oldest customers still expect their cut flowers for Easter."
Roy's fascination with orchids dates back to 1944 when he saw
whole beds of Cymbidium orchids in lath houses at a nursery in
West Los Angeles. "Those old green and yellow orchids, no
one would look at them today," he said. "But hybridizing
them produced all the big showy Cymbidiums we grow now."
He now has 65,000 square feet under glass.
While millions of
orchids can and are raised from seeds today, the foolproof way
to get copies of known, beautiful flowers is by cloning. Roy
took an orchid and carefully cut into it to reveal a structure
called a basal meristem from which he can culture 2,000 exact
copies of the source orchid.
Roy and I peeked in the windows
at the culturing and propagation lab and then his "maternity
ward" with uniform racks of flasked babies disappearing
from view as far as the eye could see. Then he led me through
the potting area, where members of what he described as "my
crew from heaven" potted up small and large plants. "Orchid
roots are like a sponge," Roy said, "The best potting
medium in the world is redwood wool."
[Above right: orchid
pollen sacs revealed. At left: Flasks of baby orchids. Below
right: Maternity ward for baby orchids at Sequoia Orchids]
I never saw a million orchids
before. But counting all the babies, I probably saw a billion
orchids at Sequoia. Roy's biggest problem, he said, is "getting
rid of orchids! I could grow so many more if I could sell more."
Roy's dream is to create orchids inexpensively enough that everyone
can afford them. Humboldt's nearly perfect growing conditions
are offset, he remarked, by the distance to any sizable market
of orchid consumers. Sequoia sells mostly wholesale, through
its Web site and by phone. Most of its customers live beyond
Humboldt although some local businesses buy from them and sell
Sequoia Orchids at retail.
is a wealth of knowledge and passionate about his obsession.
He said that the fascination with orchids is to a large extent
due to orchid collectors' love of detail: the differences among
families of orchids, individual plants and even bloom-by-bloom
comparisons on the same plant. He said that Orchidaceae is the
largest family of flowering plants, with nearly 500 genera and
20,000 species worldwide. There are about 20 species of local
native orchids, including several in the local dunes, hardly
the place you'd expect to find plants more commonly associated
with the tropics.
Orchids have been known since
ancient times. Their name, "Orchis," comes from the
Greek word for "testicle," and refers to the shape
of their bulbs. The family itself is far more ancient than human
history, dating back to approximately 120 million years ago when
dinosaurs wandered the earth and most of the continents were
joined. As the continents split, orchids went along for the ride.
Now they are found everywhere on Earth except Antarctica, where
they may have been before crushing ice sheets destroyed its ecosystem.
People used to believe that
orchids were hard to care for, that they couldn't be raised from
seeds, that they were best left for the rich to toy with, Ray
But beginning in the 1930s,
when orchid seeds were first cultivated in captivity, scientific
knowledge about them grew quickly.
By the 1950s orchid hybridizers
had created 20,000 named varieties by taking the pollen from
one plant and putting it into the ovary of another. Now the number
of varieties is over 200,000 and growing every year.
Still, orchid cultivation is
not for impatient people.
orchids from seeds is a crap-shoot," said John Brugaletta,
29, recent Humboldt State University student and proprietor of
Freshwater Orchids. [photo
at left] He said that growing orchids
from seeds is tedious, time-consuming and precise. Even so, he
hopes to culture his own seed some day, because that's where
the excitement is: the thrill of creating a brand new plant.
[below right: orchid seed
Right now, of our local growers,
only Sequoia Orchids does its own seed laboratory work; the rest
send the seed pods out of county. The labs return baby plants
in flasks two to three years later. After that, it can take up
to five years for the plants to flower.
Brugaletta specializes in South
American Pleurothallid orchids, including lovely members of the
genera Dracula and Masdevallia. He pointed out that they don't
have the lovely fragrance usually associated with orchids. Instead
he said, "They smell rather like new office furniture."
Pleurothallids make up for it with their
flowers. They have particularly showy sepals, two of their petals
have become small and look like snail eyestalks. The third "lip"
petal has become a pouch. With the two "eyes" the lip
makes a face, hence the name "little dragon." Contrary
to H.G. Wells' famous story, "The Flowering of the Strange
Orchid" (originally published in Pearson's Magazine,
April 1905), their flowers do not really suck blood.
is a wealth of information about orchids. He caught the orchid
bug the traditional way. He saw a beautiful orchid, bought it,
took it home and killed it. He pointed out a new one of the same
kind and said, "Look at these tails. Look at the orange
color. This was like nothing I had ever seen." Soon orchids
had taken over his living room, he added. "It was the last
thing my mom expected, me in plants." He says his girlfriend
humors him, but she's begun to pick out lovely iridescent orchids
for him to grow. Brugaletta grew wistful as he fingered a lovely
Dracula's flowers. He said, "I wish I could go to Peru and
see these in the wild," and added, "Maybe someday."
Until then he's in the long, slow business of growing orchids
in nearly perfect natural conditions.
Having taken plant taxonomy
and other specialized classes at HSU, Brugaletta showed me how
the anatomy of the flower, stem and root distinguishes different
families of orchids. The flower comes from the stem. Three sepals
originally cover the flower bud. As the bud opens the sepals'
bright colors are revealed as are three flower petals. Two of
the petals are usually mirror images of each other, the other
has become modified into the "labellum" or "lip"
which adjoins the reproductive organs. The lip provides the entry
to the flower's inner sanctum. Pollinators are forced past sticky
yellow pollen packets and onto the plant's ovary. Once fertilized,
the top end of the stem enlarges sometimes to several inches
long and up to three or four million seeds form inside. [Above left: Masdevalia flowers at Freshwater
Orchids. Below right: John Brugaletta holds a Dracula orchid
Walking around Brugaletta's
Freshwater greenhouse, he explained that orchids exploit various
lifestyles. They live in trees as epiphytes, on bare rock and
pebbles as lithophytes and even terrestrially on humus-rich forest
floors. Among the 23 native species of orchids in Humboldt County
are Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa), Transverse Rein Orchid (Piperia
transversa), Elegant Rein Orchid (Piperia elegans), Ladies' Tresses
(Spiranthes romanzoffiana), and Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera
oblongifolia), all of which grow on local dunes.
So why the mystique, the drama,
the charisma? What has an orchid got that most flowers have not
they do bloom, the flowers are brightly colored, long-lasting,
usually deeply scented, and associated with mystery, romance
and intrigue. Turn-of-the-century Eureka was not immune to orchid
fever. John C. Cottrell, a top millwright built his ornate home
on C Street in 1900. Sometimes described as "mini-Carson
Mansion," the Cottrell house has been lovingly maintained
in nearly its original condition by a series of owners, most
recently Katharine and Michael Eagan, who proudly showed me the
only known intentionally built orchid room in town. Just to the
side of the main door, there's a view window into it from the
grand stairs, so Cottrell could see his flowers on the way up
and down the stairs. [At
left: The Cottrell House orchid room in Eureka]
The room has nearly perfect
conditions for orchid growing, north and east facing light under
shady overhangs, no heat and lots of windows to provide the gentle
drafts these exotic flowers crave. Not surprisingly, Katharine,
a master gardener, is herself in love with orchids. There are
a dozen in the room and a few hardy outside growing Cymbidium
orchids in pots around a fountain. Her husband even built her
a greenhouse for her orchids, but she found they preferred the
old room so they moved right back in to the Cottrell House.
Elsewhere, orchid growing was
an upper class hobby from the 1700s until the 1970s when cloning
brought orchid prices down from unreasonable to affordable. Many
people in Humboldt culture these new and less expensive varieties.
Some belong to local fancier groups, the Eel River Orchid Alliance
and the Humboldt Orchid Society. The Eel River group meets the
first Saturday of each month at 1 p.m. at Sequoia Springs Residential
Care in Fortuna. Members get orchids from each other and from
the monthly raffle. The Humboldt Orchid Society meets at the
Adorni Center in Eureka on the fourth Monday of each month at
6:30 p.m. Both groups participate in an annual orchid show in
Arcata in October.
Creek Orchids is a mainstay at local exhibitions. Nestled right
along the coast near the McKinleyville airport, visitors are
greeted by Anna, a large white dog, and Patricia Hill, her owner,
who specializes in classical Odontoglossum orchids and sells
one-of-a-kind seed raised orchids to collectors all over the
United States through her Web site. Hill, who appears to be in
her late 50s, also shows at Humboldt County farmers' markets,
although she says they mostly sell carnivorous plants at the
markets, not orchids. "People are into instant gratification,"
Hill said, "They don't want to wait to see a flower; they
want it now." Her devoted customers, on the other hand,
regularly buy plants that have not yet flowered for the thrill
of seeing the first bloom. It may be a show orchid or a dud.
You never know with seed-raised orchids. [Above right: Patricia Hill in greenhouse at Strawberry
Creek Orchids. Below left: Odontoglossum like this one mimic
insects that are their pollinators in the wild.]
Years ago, the
Wittwers visited her when she worked at the Santa Barbara Orchid
Estate. They told her of the wonderful growing conditions in
Humboldt. She and her late husband relocated here 20 years ago
and started the business.
Hill said, "Odonts aren't
easy, but we're in Odont heaven here with the high coastal humidity
and cool summers." Strawberry Creek has registered 35 hybrids
and has another 35 Hill is considering for registration.
Just about then, a large Pacific
tree frog started calling lustily from a bromeliad. The frogs
are tolerated. The abundant ferns peeking out of every pot are
not. "We are in the midst of weeding right now," she
said as her assistant wheeled out 65 gallons of fern debris.
"I hate ferns," she hissed vehemently, then smiled
immediately as an orchid caught her eye. "I got an Award
of Merit from the American Orchid Society for this one,"
Hill said as she touched yet another brilliant flower. "Some
of the judges want all the flowers to look exactly the same,
spot for spot," she said, "You have to know your judges
-- and your flowers." She showed me an orchid in seed. Its
long pod hung down from what once was a flower stalk. It takes
from nine to 12 months to mature, then it will be harvested and
sent to the lab for processing. Two or three years later, the
babies will come back for planting. Another three years, and
they'll be ready to flower. Hill will be waiting for them. "Orchid
growing is not for people who want to get rich fast," she
said, "In my experience, it's not for people who want to
get rich at all."
Just down the road
I met with Blaine Maynor, 35, the energetic co-owner of Orchids
for the People who had just returned from an orchid show and
was busily directing his crew shipping a few orchids. Maynor
grew up with orchids, graduated from HSU and began collecting
weird and rare species. Eventually he ran out of space in his
house, moved to a greenhouse in Arcata in 1995 and moved again
to his current McKinleyville site in 2000. He grows Odontoglossum,
Dracula, Masdevallia, Zygopetalum and Dendrobium plants. The
latter are native to Australia.
[Right: Blaine Maynor shows off a Masdevallia in his McKinleyville
Maynor said he sells through
eBay, his own Web site and an orchid clearinghouse www.orchidmall.com.
He shows at local farmers' markets, out-of-area judging shows,
the local October orchid show and the Orchid Society meetings,
as well as being open to the public four days a week. Perhaps
his most interesting local idea is plant leasing. He explained,
"I'll bring the orchids, place them, maintain them and put
out new ones, all for a monthly fee." He also provides masses
of orchids for weddings and builds greenhouses for other orchid
fanciers, including Humboldt's newest growers, Paphways Orchids
Bollinger, 44 [photo at
left], began growing orchids in
1987 when he lived in the Bay Area. He said, "When I saw
my first Pahphiopedilum, it just grabbed me. That's why I specialize
in only Paphiopedilum orchids." The first pot he bought
contained two species. "They were $50 each," he said.
"It was the most I'd ever spent on a plant. But what I really
love is that many of my orchids were named for famous orchid
growers whom I've actually known."
Bollinger grows Paphiopedilum,
also called the lady's-slipper orchid. Bollinger first fell in
love with the flowers in San Francisco back yards where old Cymbidiums
grew in pots. True to form, the first orchids he bought died
-- probably because of overwatering -- and he was hooked. "I
got orchid fever," he said. "They're so easy, so beautiful.
Water them once a week and fertilize regularly, that's all."
[Below right: a classic
lady's-slipper orchid at Bollinger's Paphways Orchids in Fieldbrook]
Standing in his greenhouse, he
pointed toward a shade house also full of orchids. "I'm
just figuring out how to sell orchids in Humboldt County,"
he said. "Most people up here are more into flowering plants,
but once they catch orchid fever, that will change." His
voice trailed off as he considered it. As we went though his
greenhouses, he gently touched various plants, old friends all.
His kitchen has specially made flask racks, one contains a seed
cross he made five years ago. "They'd grow faster if I put
them out" in the greenhouse, he said. "But they're
so cute when they're little."
Bollinger's only been growing
in Humboldt since 2002. Moving up here and starting his business
is his life's dream. "I always wanted to live in the country
and grow orchids. So here I am." He left the Long Beach
rat race for Humboldt's perfect orchid conditions and hopes to
grow enough orchids at Paphways for "everyone to have one."
of the kind of orchids they grow, all the growers did their best
to get me hooked. They all repeated what the books said, "Beginners
need full grown plants, not babies." So several full-grown
orchids followed me home this week, sitting beautifully around
the computer while I type. I wonder, which will be the first
to die? Maybe I'll get lucky and they will all live, letting
me enjoy their flowers and perfume without the death-guilt from
which springs so many cases of orchid fever.
[At left: Zygopetalum
orchid throwing its unusual flower spikes upwards at Sequoia
I know more orchids are killed
by overwatering than underwatering but I still can't get over
flowers that can last up to six months that grow on plants that
will die in a couple of days if you put them in a bucket of water.
Orchids are contrary like that. Yellowish leaves are healthy
and brownish little pseudobulbs sticking out of pots are not
dead, merely waiting for conditions to be right. Then up goes
the flower stalk, in search of a pollinator -- or a collector
-- to appreciate their beauty, perhaps to spread them farther
than they ever could go alone.
Frae Wittwer warned me. As her
husband put a pot of orchids in my truck, she said, "Just
wait. First it's a plant or two in some corner, then watch out!"
Ellin Beltz writes theater
columns and occasional cover stories for the Journal. She is a paleontologist and author
of the upcoming book Frogs: Their Inner Life Revealed,
due from Firefly Books in October 2005.
Pacific treefrog calls from
the watery pocket inside a bromeliad in the Strawberry Creek
Orchid growers of Humboldt
Orchids for the People
1975 Blake Road, McKinleyville
Sequoia Orchids LLC
Roy and Frae Wittwer
3631 Fieldbrook Road, Fieldbrook
4373 Central Ave., McKinleyville
774 Ole Hansen Road, Freshwater
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